Sierra Leone is in a hurry to get foreign direct investment but the process of land acquisition in Sahn Malen, Pujehun District has been protested by land holding families, causing confusion among stakeholders in the area. Socfin Agricultural Company is embroiled in serious land lease agreement tussle that has the tendency to ignite conflict between foreign investors and locals, warns a local NGO Green Scenery in a fact finding mission report published recently.
The relationship between land owners and the Socfin Agriculture Company at Lower Malen in Pujehun District has created tension in the area, resulting to riots, road blocks and disruption of normal traffic and operational activities of the company.
Residents in the area have accused their Honorable Paramount Chief P.V.S. Kebbie and the Minister of Agriculture Dr. Sam Sesay of entering into a land lease agreement with Socfin Agriculture Company without proper consultation with land owners.
An aggrieved former worker of the Agriculture Company claiming to be the spokesperson of the affected land owners, Eddie Amara, said the Chief has threatened the people that nobody should reject investments from abroad even if the process is flawed.
He said over three hundred plantation owners have been affected in the area due to poor lease negotiation agreement, citing the annual rent payment per hectare at Le 1m (one million Leones).
He said land owners are demanding that rent be increased from Le1m to Le3m annually because the livelihood of the people has been affected due to the company’s activities, and that labour standards should also be improved.
Eddie also said that the people are also demanding that Socfin Agriculture Company undertakes some community development projects like road rehabilitation, construction of water wells and improvement of health care delivery for residents affected by the company’s operations.
He also called for a review of the land lease agreement between the government, land owners and the agriculture company in a bid to avert conflict in the future.
Eddie Amara also said normal activities were halted in the 24 villages and four sections of Lower Malen on Tuesday this week where over 600,000 seeds have been nursed by the Socfin Agriculture Company.
Awoko also contacted the General Manager of Socfin Agriculture Company, Gerban Haringston, for their own side of the story and he said “we have had several meetings with stakeholders in Pujehun to address some of the complaints raised by the people. Some of the concerns raised are currently being implemented”.
He expressed regret that there was riot at the site in Pujehun and they have engaged people since 2010 over the land lease agreement and they have also paid the monies to the government.The General Manager of Socfin Agriculture Company Gerban Haringston also explained that plans are underway to map the entire concession area through GPS to identify the legitimate land owners and their entitlements.
Pujehun Council Chairman, Sadiq Sillah, confirmed the protest and called for a dialogue to address the issue.
Explaining further, he said a land lease agreement between the government of Sierra Leone through the Ministry of Agriculture and Chiefdom authorities in Pujehun, was signed but that there are still gray areas in the agreement.
“I spent three days visiting several villages but learnt that negotiation for compensation rent was too small and social benefits should be provided as an alternative livelihood for the people.
He also pointed out that a Gentleman’s agreement between the Paramount Chief and the Company over an existing plantation has also created problems for the process
The Chairman also said that the people want to negotiate with the Company themselves over the land lease agreement.
There are problems with Socfin and we are planning to resolve the issue through dialogue also casting doubts over the sour relationship between the Hon. Paramount Chief P.V.S. Kebbie and the MP representing the constituency.
Efforts to get Paramount Chief P.V.S. Kebbie and the Minister of Agriculture Dr. Sam Sesay who have been accused of directly negotiating the land lease agreement with the company without the understanding of the land owners proved futile but our investigation continues.
By Saidu Bah